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The Pop Culture Death Trap Part 2: The Death of Beauty

Graeme Abernethy

Despite having seen it all before – the rock star and the blonde actress – we look on each such instance of celebrity death with the same mixture of surprise, curiosity, horror, and glee. Pop culture reflects our capacity to simultaneously ignore death and make of it an obsession.

Things are sweeter when they're lost. I know–because once I wanted something and got it […] And when I got it it turned to dust in my hands.

-- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned

Celebrity worship in industries other than sports is less driven by the projection of absolutes of triumph and abjection. Other avenues of pop culture are similarly concerned, however – especially when anchored by images of youthful beauty – with narratives of life and death. This second entry in “The Pop Culture Death Trap” series shifts focus from symbolic to literal death, highlighting a continuing cultural preoccupation with mythic meaning in spite of the ever-accelerating pace of cultural change. Within this dynamic, popular forms, from novels to films and beyond, are born, evolve, and eventually will be consigned to the trash heap of history like those aging idols, yesterday commodified, and today disposed of in relative anonymity in the celebrity graveyard of the Hollywood Hills or, at least, of Sunset Boulevard.

The spectacle of death is a powerful, if typically elided, undercurrent of our celebrity culture. Implicit in the paparazzi baiting of such troubled or self-destructive figures as Lindsay Lohan or the briefly bald Britney Spears is, it can be argued, a simmering, mean-spirited expectation of death, like that observed by Nathanael West in his Day of the Locust portrait of the unhappy Americans who come to California to gawk, to die, and, if necessary, to kill, ideally at a movie premiere. Where else? Such spectacles of death are not always the conscious directive of our superficially festive culture, which is, nevertheless, continually if unpredictably punctuated by instances of death as entertainment. Despite having seen it all before – the rock star and the blonde actress – we look on each such instance with the same mixture of surprise, curiosity, horror, and glee. In this way, pop culture is reflective of our more general capacity to simultaneously ignore death and make of it an obsession.

As it does to all, death comes to celebrities in a variety of forms. We are made aware at periodic junctures, however, of the distinctive cultural potency bestowed on celebrities, both garden-variety and superstar, by the romantic consecration of youthful death. Confirming or exaggerating the importance of a given figure – say, James Dean – death enables the elevation of his image above the visual detritus of our culture. The ensuing translation to pure symbol, or Dean’s sudden embodiment of ideal beauty now frozen in time, concerns the relationship of death not only to art but to modern consumerism, with its intensification of practices of disposal, replacement, and obsolescence. This fetishization of death and selective remembrance both honors and thoroughly transforms the dead; it also subtly transforms our perception of the dying potentialities of the still living and newly forged celebrities remaining on our streets and screens. The fascination with celebrity death may only be in fact a logical extension of a culture predicated on disposability.

”He was handsome then if never before, bound for one of those immortal moments which come so radiantly that their remembered light is enough to see by for years.

She was a sun, radiant, growing, gathering light and storing it–then after an eternity pouring it forth in a glance, the fragment of a sentence, to that part of him that cherished all beauty and all illusion.”

-- Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned

There is a paradox by which the dead celebrity is a more malleable symbol than the living individual. Perhaps especially, the death of an actor in our visually driven culture represents an abstraction to the realm of pure image. The more impossibly lovely the actor, the more mournful their loss – by a similar logic, we might suppose, the more desirable their succumbing to youth-preserving death.

Dean certainly became a visual receptacle of fantasy or myth following his death, not least as an exceedingly beautiful pop culture archetype of generational rebellion. Rather than through any radical commitments, his rebel associations emerged largely from the fictional roles he played onscreen and the fast cars he famously drove, and which killed him. In his heroic posturing and hedonism, Dean prefigured the rock star deaths of subsequent decades. (He also prefigured the generic good looks of teen idols to the present day: Even Justin Bieber rode to fame at least in part on the strength of a replica James Dean quiff.)

Dean may indeed be seen as the prototypical icon of pop culture, a figure uniting popular heroism and sex appeal with quasi-religious worship. In the model perfected by the authors of Dean’s cultural legacy, the worshipper becomes consumer, purchasing and displaying proximity to the departed idol by way of films, posters, and t-shirts. Such expensive gazing affords a figure like Dean unique power; he becomes an object both of desire and vicarious identification for the viewer.

The Rebel Without a Cause’s evident link with youth culture is typical of consumerist icons. Only gesturally political, Dean provided a template for rebellion to be expressed and finally absorbed within the culture of capitalism. The commodification and cooptation of the rebellious impulses of young people may in fact be the key to capitalism’s perpetuation.

The cultural afterlife of Marilyn Monroe, on the other hand, illustrates the gratifications of an image of femininity that was vulnerable and individual yet undeniably manufactured or mass-reproduced. Andy Warhol observed and exploited this “seven-year itch” or apparent cultural need for repetition. It’s apparent also in recent portrayals of Monroe by Michelle Williams (in My Week With Marilyn) and Scarlett Johansson (in a Dolce and Gabbana ad campaign in 2010).

As with James Franco playing Dean in a 2001 TV movie, these instances of actorly dress-up reveal an absurd cycle of wish fulfillment and fantasy at pop culture’s core. Why else should we be asked to suspend disbelief in order to accept a recognizable actor in the role of another recognizable actor? Simply, to aid in the retrenchment of the cult of consumerist nostalgia.

”There was no great literary tradition; there was only the tradition of the eventful death of every literary tradition.”

-- Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned

In 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald achieved a rare and genuine, if short-lived, fame as 23-year-old literary celebrity. The terms of his early reputation were established following the publication of his first and most immediately successful novel, This Side of Paradise, a charming if ragged Bildungsroman fictionalizing the author’s early romantic entanglements and his Princeton years. His celebrity status did him few favors with many among his initial critics, and, with the arrival of a more proletarian literary fashion in the ‘30s, the perceived obsolescence of his prodigals and debutantes seemed further pronounced. Even The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, fell for a time out of print.

In his letters and essays, Fitzgerald indulged a hard-luck narrative in which a faddish public abandoned him to frustration and ill health. What many (and perhaps he) regarded as his own wasted potential, his dissolution in drunkenness and anxiety, at least retrospectively, became part of his legend. The crucial factor in his popular resurrection was, of course, the romantic consecration enabled by his death, in 1940, at 44. By reissuing The Great Gatsby, with the fragment The Last Tycoon, in 1941, his publisher Scribner’s, at least, demonstrated an awareness of the cultural appetite for narratives of youthful death – in this case, both Fitzgerald’s and Gatsby’s. By the mid-‘40s, The Great Gatsby was firmly established as a central document in American literature. It currently sells some 400,000 copies annually, an impressive feat for a story telling us that the hero’s fondest desire – to repossess an ever-receding past – is, finally, doomed.

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